Thursday, 31 May 2018

Paris by the book by Liam Callanan

books set in Paris

Do you buy books, having been taken by a book cover design? Happens to my all the time. If I've spotted Paris by the Book (HarperCollins) by Liam Callanan in a bookshop, I would buy it. It has a cover which draws you in with a catching design.
You see a row of houses in a respectable Paris district, with blooming trees around. One of the houses is painted in fire truck red. It stands out like a raw wound. And then there is a red balloon flying above the block.

If you're a cinephile, you'd immediately think of the short film by Albert Lamorisse about a little boy who befriends a red balloon, and about their adventures together. It is a beautiful melancholic film, quite obscure nowadays, unless you collect DVDs of old films or study cinema.

In fact, that's exactly The Red Balloon featured on the cover. It is an important detail in the narrative.
It was The Red Balloon which brought together Leah and Robert Eady all those years ago.
Both creative people, they seem to understand how individuality and imagination can absorb you completely, and how the ordinary mundane life could repel and bore you.

Their marriage starts as a union of like-minded people. Robert writes a bestseller, and then struggles to produce another book.
Then life happens. Two children later, it's Leah who has to earn the bread and pay the bills, while Robert disappears on his writing forays. He would announce that he needs some time, and off he goes gallivanting, not so much as an excuse for creativity, but rather a banal escape from the family obligations and responsibilites. At first these disappearances are short, and there is always a note or a clue of some sort. Then the disappearances become longer, and one day he simply vanishes. Without a single note.

One day Leah finds a clue in a cereal box and discovers there are tickets booked for a trip to Paris. So, she takes off with her daughters Ellie and Daphne, and opens a bookshop in Paris. Just like that.
Life abroad is quite a struggle, the business is hardly flourishing. The girls though take to Paris like ducks to the water.

Will Leah find out what's happened to her husband? Is he still alive, is he in Paris? Will they be reunited?

The plot of the novel is slow-paced, with the narrative jumping from the present in Paris to the American past.
There are numerous references to the Red Balloon as well as the Madeline books, both of which romanticise Paris.

Ultimately this is the story about grieving and coping with a loss of a loved one.
I think you need to be in the right mood to appreciate the style of the book, I confess I struggled a bit with the slow pace. The best parts for me were descriptions of Paris - streets, smells, food, manners.
Alas, I didn't care much about Leah, and her husband sounded like a right self-obsessed twit.

There are too many references to The Red Balloon and Madeline, to the point it felt affected. I wanted to shout "There are other books about Paris, you know!"

I wanted to shake Leah and tell her: "You have two daughters who need you. Stop obsessing about your selfish husband. He left you long before his disappearance. Don't waste your life on someone who clearly has a commitment phobia and whose ego needs to be stroked constantly. He made his choice, don't chase after his shadow".

Paris by the Book (paperback) is out tomorrow, 1 June 2018.

books set in Paris

Disclosure: I received a proof copy of the book for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are my own.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Friend Request by Laura Marshall

psychological thriller

I tend not to buy books which are lauded as "the most addictive psychological thriller you'll read this year" or "the most anticipated thriller of the year" etc, as they often do not live up to expectations.
Friend Request by Laura Marshall had raving reviews and endorsements from Jenny Colgan, Marian Keyes and Erin Kelly.

I picked it up recently, browsing books (guiltily, I must admit, as I should stop buying paperbacks) at The Works, and got my 3 for £5 fix. It is an addiction, and my pile of books is ever-growing. Though I read regularly, and then take them to the charity shop, the ratio of read to bought is quite disproportionate. I do need to join a club of Bookaholics Anonymous.

These days it seems almost a rarity, when someone doesn't have any social media accounts. There are of course such atypical creatures - my Mum is one of them, but it appears most of us do dabble in one or the other social account, and share personal lives on several platforms.
Not surprising, that there are books being written about the dangers and perils of over-sharing lives on social media, when we unwittingly leave ourselves open to "stranger danger".

I can't say that I'm living my life on social media, and I do take it with a big pinch of salt. One has to be very naive to believe everything you see in staged images of perfect life. Just read the numerous threads on Mumsnet regarding the lack of transparency and exploitation of children by Instamums, but I digress.

For me Facebook is a way of connecting with people with whom I'd otherwise wouldn't be able to keep in touch, like some of my school mates, or friends who live abroad.
My Facebook circle is quite limited in comparison these days, I have culled the list of friends, but when I joined Facebook, I remember befriending people who I had not known much about (i.e. the only thing we had in common was our love of comping, or cooking).
Of course, you can never be too careful about what friend requests you accept.

Would you accept a friend request from someone who has been presumed dead for over 25 years?
I wouldn't.

But Louise, the main protagonist of the book, did.
"Maria Weston wants to be friends with me. Maybe that was the problem all along; Maria Weston wanted to be friends with me, but I let her down. She's been hovering at the edge of my consciousness for all of my adult life, although I've been good at keeping her out, just as a blurred shadow in the corner of my eye, almost but not quite out of sight.
Maria Weston wants to be friends.
But Maria Weston has been dead for more than twenty-five years."

Louise is a single working Mum, who is devoted to her 4-year-old son Henry. She is still emotionally hankering after her ex-husband who left her for a younger woman when she got pregnant. The other woman barely features in the book, but I don't have much compassion for someone who has an affair with a married man, knowing there is a very young child involved.

Louise accepts the friend request from Maria, because she has a guilty secret which goes back to the night when Maria has gone missing. Her body was never found, and she was later presumed dead.

Flashbacks to high school days show just what a piece of shit Louise was, siding up with the obnoxious bullies who enjoyed their power and made Maria's life as miserable as possible.

Twenty five years later, Louise is still struggling with her guilt (and rightly so). Louise has changed, but I still wouldn't call her a likeable character. She clearly enjoys her drink, and in many ways is not sensible enough. Though being dumped by her horrid husband, she is not mature enough to cut clean all the links with him. And knowing the extent of the dominating relationship she had with him in the past, I don't understand why she's still all a-tremble in his presence.

After accepting the friend request, Louise starts receiving menacing messages from Maria. She is followed, watched and threatened. With the class reunion looming, she cannot avoid uncomfortable questions and tries to find out what has really happened to Maria.

The story has a clever plot. with an ambiguous twist at the end. Is the killer truly dead, or will they come back to wreak revenge?
The dynamics of teenage girls' friendships is believable and sadly true to life.

As a debut novel, it is an accomplished achievement, and I will be keeping an eye on new releases from Laura Marshall.

psychological thriller

There are some issues with the plot that have been niggling at my mind.
I found the short chapters in Italics rather confusing, and still don't quite know who wrote them. Wife no.1 or no.2? They are never explained properly.
At some point I thought it was Louise's old friend Esther writing about her over-protective husband, but again, this line doesn't seem to go anywhere. Why was he so over-nannyish towards his wife during the reunion?

The idea that Louise would risk the life of her child and herself and keep the information from police beggars belief. She couldn't seriously consider she would be prosecuted for what she did 25 years ago. The motivation of her actions was not credible, and the incompetence of police is a joke.

Have you read Friend Request? What did you think of it?

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

New dinosaur figurines from Schleich

 dinosaur figurines from Schleich, dinosaurs

Last Easter fortnight Eddie and I spent glued to the TV, binge-watching 5 seasons of Primeval. If you haven't seen it, it's a sci-fi series based on the premises of anomalies appearing all around us, which open the doors to the scary prehistoric past or the bleak future. We watched it together and later discussed all the scary bits about dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, the nature of evolution and what would happen if these creatures were indeed let loose in the streets of modern cities.

And then there's the Jurassic Park/World series, which we've also watched together last year, snuggled under the duvet for extra safety.
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is hitting the big screens next month, and it's rated PG. I'm not sure yet if we go to see it in the cinema, I think I'll wait for reviews first.

For dino-loving devotees like us, Schleich offer a selection of new dinosaur figurines for 2018. This year, Schleich fans will be thrilled to see dinosaurs in new poses and designs. Their range is regularly expanded, and the website is of great educational value. You can find a lot of information about the prehistoric creatures.

dinosaur figurines, dinosaur toys

Tyrannosaurus Rex (£15.99) is a giant among the other Schleich toys.

T-Rex, a 13-metres-long two-legged predator, must have been a truly terrifying sight, with its massive skull and 15-20-cm long teeth.
Its short front legs with claws were almost useless, as they could not even reach its mouth.

Schleich toys are well known for their attention to detail. Just look at those menacing eyes, and over fifty teeth, which T-Rex used for tearing the meat rather than chewing.
The toy has a movable jaw.

dinosaur figurines

The intricate paintwork is high quality, with detailed textural effects.

dinosaur figurines

Schleich dinosaurs

Schleich dinosaurs

The Dinogorgon (£7.99) lived over 250 million years ago where South Africa and Tansania now lie. It was a little carnivore with powerful jaws and a small but thick skull.
It got its lovely name after the Gorgons, the terrifying creatures of the Greek mythology.

Schleich dinos

The Psittacosaurus (£7.99) was a small, lightweight dinosaur that lived over 100 million years ago.

Schleich dinosaurs

It had a distinct, unique appearance with its parrot-like beak. The beak was handy for cracking fruit and seeds. But don't mistake him for a vegetarian, it was a carnivore.

Schleich dinosaurs

Its long tail was decorated with long thin spines like porcupine's. Its skin was covered with dots and stripes.

Schleich dinosaurs

These new dinosaurs from Schleich will make an excellent addition to any dinosaur figurine collection.

For the full range of prehistoric animals, visit Schleich Toys.

Disclosure: We received new Schleich toys for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are our own.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Photo diary: week 21, project 365

On Sunday Eddie and I went to the cinema to watch Sherlock Gnomes. We invited Eddie's best mate with us. I think the boys enjoyed the film more than I did. There were some amusing moments, but overall it was predictable and a bit yawn-inducing. I'd rate it 3/5, though Eddie was more generous - he said his rating would be 7/10.

Monday sky was full of fluffy clouds. It was a hot day. I nearly melted, watching Eddie's school rehearsing the performance for the next day.

It was still very hot on Tuesday, when Eddie's current and previous schools had a joint May Day dance on the Green. There were lots of spectators, including some elderly darlings who came prepared with the tea flasks and biscuits. I took a lot of photos of dancing children, but for obvious reasons cannot share them on social media.
Here is my smiley boy. He did very well, I thought. He might not be a natural dancer but he gave it all, and it was more than some other kids did.

There are some random flowers appearing in my garden, I never remember where and what is supposed to be, and completely forgot that I had some irises.

Thursday was full of sadness. I went to the funeral of Sasha's school mate. It was a very moving and heart-breaking service. The big church was packed full, with school parents, teachers, carers. I dissolved into tears when the coffin, decorated with penguins, entered the church to the music of "Bring him home".
I cried so much, during the service and afterwards, that I had a splitting headache later.
Sash was staying at his respite place overnight, my husband had to travel in the evening, so it was just Eddie and me on our own. We ordered a pizza takeaway, and watched Batman vs Superman.
I didn't take any photos on that day.
The roses, cascading down, are in our garden.

Friday was a rainy day. I managed to catch this flying beauty just after the rain has stopped.

I told Eddie that my blog readers were disappointed not to see a Gregg's sausage photo last week, so could we go back to Gregg's? He said: OK, if it's for the fans, let's do it. Ta da, a Sausage roll weekly is back.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Ahem, GDPR

In the last few days I've being drowning in one million GDPR emails. Today I deleted over 150 emails without opening, as I am losing a will to live. It feels like a harassment.

And there is life beyond blogging and digital world. Just today I was at the funeral, and all this GDPR business pales into insignificance in comparison.

While it might be all clear-cut for bigger businesses and blogs, hobby blogs like mine are at a loss. What are we supposed to do? I've read several "useful" posts, explaining the ins and outs, but am left none the wiser. And if anything, I'm more confused than ever.
It feels like an offer you cannot refuse. Very much mafia-like, when you're supposedly receiving protection without actually understanding what from and why.

Anyway, just to be on the safe side, I think I need to say that due to changes in law, I have to leave some kind of note, informing my readers about GDPR.

Chez Maximka has been live for over 7 years, and is a hobby blog. I have no plans to monetise it.
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Saturday, 19 May 2018

Photo diary: week 20, project 365

If you were expecting another Gregg's sausage roll weekly photo, sorry to disappoint you. Eddie said he wanted to change, and asked to go to Costa instead. Well, that is almost a sacrilege!
Instead of a much loved sausage roll, he has chosen a donut-shaped bake sweet thingy made with rice krispies.

On Monday the sky was criss-crossed everywhere I walked. Must have been a busy flying day for the RAF base.

We have a small pondette in the garden, which is an old feature, completely overgrown. We have covered most of it when children were little, and now it does need to be re-dug and probably lined anew, but don't think it's going to happen any time soon. We have pond irises growing there every year. I love the pattern of fresh green leaves.

We have quite a bit of wild life in the garden, they start arriving back home by the evening. This one looked a bit dyspeptic.

The fig tree has beautiful leaves.

Yesterday's bake - Coconut and chocolate loaf cake. I used a box of Dr Oetker coconut chocolate babka, which I bought in the Polish shop. It wasn't bad, but not very chocolatey.

I had no plans to watch the Royal Wedding. I was hoping that most people would be glued to their TVs, so we timed going out into town just around 12pm. To my surprise, a lot of people had the same "bright" idea. We went to the Food festival in town, and it was packed full.
I only bought a few little things, like beautiful tiger-striped tomatoes, a pack of dried Ancho chilli peppers and a few slices of cake for the boys.
Eddie has chosen a horrid-looking psychedelic Disco cake. I do hope he doesn't have indigestion, as I don't trust all these food colourings.
He was pretty happy with it, though he did mentioned the story of his friend J who has eaten a green and blue cupcake at the school fair and then had green poo. This memorable story resurfaces every time we see cakes like that.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Porcini mushroom soup

vegetarian meals

I enjoy browsing in the local Polish deli. So many unknown brands and products. Some are pretty obvious and self-explanatory (you don't need to know Polish to understand), some are more tricky to guess. It's a bit of a pot luck, I'd say. I found quite a few favourites, which I buy often, but there are also a few things that I regret buying.
Dried porcini mushrooms are good quality, and make an excellent base for a soup. On one of my recent visits I have spotted bags of frozen porcini mushrooms, and just had to try it.

Lesne Skarby Borowiki Cale (Boletus Edulis) can be found in the freezer section. This is a 300g bag of whole mushrooms.
There were three big mushrooms inside.

Borowiki is Polish for cep or porcini.

There is a recipe suggestion on the back of the bag (in Polish and English) for a creamy porcini mushroom soup, cooked with chicken broth and double/heavy cream.

I wanted to cook something lighter and also vegetarian.

Porcini mushroom soup
1 sweet onion
2tbsp olive oil
1/2 big (or 1 small) carrot, finely chopped
300g porcini, defrosted
1tbsp vegetable bouillon stock
a handful of basmati rice
1 big potato
a dash of single cream (optional, skip for a vegan version)

Start by frying finely chopped onion for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the finely chopped carrot, and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the chopped mushrooms. Season with sea salt.

In a medium sized pan bring water to boil, add the stock and mushroom mix, as well as rice and cubed potatoes. Cook for about 15+ minutes on low, until the potatoes are soft. Add cream.
Serve hot, with a bit of fresh chopped parsley.

vegetarian soup

This is a tasty vegetarian dish. I love mushrooms, and cook all kinds of mushroom soup often enough. This was the first time I've tried cooking soup from frozen porcini mushrooms, and I will definitely buy them again.

easy vegetarian meals

Monday, 14 May 2018

Souk by Nadia Zerouali and Merijn Tol (book review) & Stuffed Aubergines

Arabic cuisine cook book
Souk: Image Credits - Smith Street Books

"Imagine a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon with long tables casually filled with delicious mezze - cold and hot sharing plates that together form a delicious and inviting meal in themselves. Here, family and friends enjoy the abundance of the sharing table - from carrots with arak and dishes of silky-soft hummus to fried kibbeh balls and tabouleh or fattoush".

This wonderful description brings back memories of the years, when I was newly wed and when we lived in a tiny house in Jericho, Oxford. We used to visit the local Lebanese restaurant Al-Shami. It was there that I tried mezze for the first time. I was hooked. I loved all the cold and hot appetisers and sharing plates. I haven't been in that restaurant this side of the millennium, but I believe it still exists.

Souk by Nadia Zerouali and Merijn Tol (Smith Street Books, released 1 April 2018; £25) is a colourful, soulful homage to the Middle Eastern way of life.
The authors say: "Throughout our time in the Middle East, it became clear to us that mezze is equal to the generosity and hospitality of the Levantine people".

Arabic cuisine book

This beautiful edition includes over 100 inspiring recipes to fill the table with Nadia and Merijn's version of a mezze feast. There are recipes to appeal to both flexitarians and vegetarians.
It is well written, with short personal stories and reminiscences about food.

Photographs by Ernie Enkler are simply stunning. As a food blogger, I always pay attention to styling - beautiful fabrics and china used in the photos.

Arabic recipes
Labne, Souk: Image Credits - Smith Street Books
Just look at those splashes of colour - don't you want to grab a flatbread and just dip into that pepper sauce?!

Arabic recipes

I also absolutely loved little embroidery samples by Anneke Koorman at the beginning of each chapter, they are deceptively simple and so charming. They make me feel like going back to embroidery again.

Such pretty little pieces, I can easily see them on napkins and tea towels. And they make a lovely quirky touch to the cook book.

Recipes include drinks and cocktails, cold and warm mezze, the grill and after dinner (desserts).
I have bookmarked several recipes, which I am going to try this summer, like this gorgeous Pistachio and semolina cake with meringue...

Souk: Image Credits - Smith Street Books
or Armenian stuffed carrots in tamarind, pomegranate and coffee sauce

I'd be happy to try a sour cherry sorbet and olive oil sorbet with rosewater, rice pudding with turmeric, tahini and pine nuts, stuffed vine leaves with pomegranate, barberries, grapes and bulghur, buttery date and sesame cookies, and many more delightful recipes.

This book will be a welcome addition to any foodie's cook book collection.

So far I have tried one of the recipes from the book. I love aubergines in all guises and disguises, as you might have seen from my blog.

I was inspired by the recipe Stuffed Eggplant with bulghur, walnuts and mint. I have adapted the recipe, first of all by halving the quantities, and then using a different way of cooking.
Quite a lot of recipes in this book do not mention prep or cooking times, so you'll have to improvise.

vegetarian meals

Aubergines stuffed with bulghur, walnuts and mint
2 aubergines
3tbsp olive oil
1 sweet onion
2 small carrots, peeled and grated
50g bulghur
1tsp vegetable stock powder
a handful of walnuts
1tbsp chopped fresh mint
1tsp paprika
a dash of pomegranate molasses
sea salt

Slice the aubergines in half lengthways and place on a baking tray, drizzle about 1tbsp olive oil over them and season with salt. Place the tray in the oven preheated to 180C.
Bake for about 15 minutes.
In the meantime, finely slice the sweet onion and grate the carrot. Fry them with the olive oil for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, then add the chopped walnuts and mint, as well as paprika and molasses, and cook for another 5 minutes.
Place dried bulghur in a small pan with water and stock, bring to boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes. The times will depend on the bulghur you are using.

The original recipe in the book suggests combining bulghur with chopped onions, walnuts and mint and then putting them in aubergine boats, and cooking all together. I didn't want the topping to be burnt if you cook for too long, or the aubergines to be uncooked, so cooked the dish differently.

Take out the aubergines, and let them cool a bit before handling them. Cut out the inside, making "boats". Cube the inside flesh and add to the bulghur mix, then scoop the mix and put inside the aubergines. You will have some of the stuffing left.

vegetarian meals
Stuffed aubergines before being roasted

Place the tray with aubergines back in the oven and cook for another 20 minutes, until the aubergines are cooked through.

Arabic recipes

Serve with the yogurt on the side. I grated a small cucumber, and added it to the yogurt with a bit of salt. If you're a vegan, obviously use the dairy-free yogurt.

Arabic recipes, vegetarian dinner

It was a very tasty vegetarian dinner. I will definitely cook it again.
If you are a meat eater, this dish will make a great side dish, just serve 1/2 aubergine per person.

Disclosure: I received a copy of the book for the purposes of reviewing. All opinions are my own.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Photo diary: week 19, project 365

Every evening Eddie and I read to each other. I would read to him one of the books chosen by him (at the moment we're on Goosebumps: HorrorLand series, no.6), and once I finish, he reads to me from another book. Most of the time I'd be ironing when he reads aloud, but occasionally both he and I just make ourselves comfortable on the bed.
Eddie's reading skills are very good. I think it's the everyday practice and persistence which has helped a lot. Some days I don't feel like reading or listening at all.

On Monday it was a bank holiday, and I insisted that we should mow the lawn, as the grass was getting out of control. While we were working, Eddie climbed on the apple tree. Here he is, in my hat, looking like Huckleberry Finn.

Tuesday: On the way to school a friend told us about one of Sasha's school mates who died the day before.
He had a MD, and was growing weaker. I first met him and his twin brother when they were in the reception. They were super active and like little tornadoes. Sasha and the twins were in the special needs reception together, running carefree and full of laughter. One of the brothers died several years ago. It hit me so hard, I can't stop crying, thinking of them.
What do you tell a parent who lost both of her children?! Whatever I say would sound empty. Such a tragedy.

Wednesday was a cloudy day. I kept looking up, at the sky.

Rhododendrons and lilac always bring me so much joy, when they bloom in May. It's such an intense pink colour, which will slowly pale into off white.

I love chestnut trees, they are marvellous in bloom. And when September comes, I can never resist picking up the conkers.

And the obligatory Sausage Roll Weekly.